Alcoholism & Aviation a lethal combo, develop the HABIT loop for quitting


Alcoholism is more than a habit, its a physical addiction with psychological and perhaps genetic roots. Alcohol anonymous helps millions world wide through its 12 steps but its the habit formation loop which actually causes the change. How does habit formation help in the long run?

Be it Alcoholism or Obesity, the powerful loop of “Cue, Routine & reward” will change behaviour.

The global spread of psychoactive substances, their general availability, and the ever-increasing number of addictive users are in many States seen as a threat to society and sometimes also as a threat to aviation safety. By 1991, eleven States had reported to ICAO that they had encountered problems with substance abuse, mainly alcoholism, within the aviation workplace.(ICAO Doc 9654)

On an average 45 pilots test positive per year for alcohol during the mandatory pre-flight breath analyzer test in India.

Alcohol and substance abuse is not primarily due to the workplace environment but more to do with social and psychological issues. While there are many strategies which can be adopted to deal with the situation, it keeps reoccurring and reviving. The power of habit is an effective strategy to deal with such maladies.


According to recent surveys, 6.2% of people who are 18 years and over have some sort of alcohol use disorder. Alcoholism is even becoming an issue for our youth, as some studies show that over 33% of 12th graders have consumed alcohol during the course of any given month of their schooling.

Cost of substance abuse

The costs associated with substance use are not limited to the costs of accidents, although those are the most obvious and dramatic. Employee dependence on alcohol or other drugs can lead to increased labour costs caused by absenteeism and use of medical benefits, theft of property, and decreased employee morale and productivity. Each of these costs may be reduced or avoided by effective prevention strategies.

Although prevention and occupational health form integral parts of aviation medicine and the concept of preventive measures has been supported by ICAO for many years, it may still be novel to some States to apply substance use prevention efforts to the aviation workplace. It is therefore important to set forth some of the guiding principles of ICAO’s actions.(ICAO Doc 9654)


One of the most common barriers to the success of a prevention programme is denial. Individuals may deny that they have substance use problems, companies may deny that any of their employees have such problems and may even disregard the possibility of such a problem arising within the company, and regulators may deny or be unable to believe that the aviation workplace in their country is or can be affected.


  • Education of workforce
  • Identification, treatment and rehabilitation
  • Employment consequences
  • Bio-Chemical testing

Alcohol Anonymous v/s Power of habit

An estimated 2.1 mill people seek help from AA each year. AA doesn’t work for everyone and the estimates are difficult to predict since the program is anonymous.

Interestingly AA doesn’t attack many of the psychiatric or bio-chemical issues that researchers say are often the core of why alcoholics drink. AA sidesteps scientific and medical findings, as well as psychiatric interventions.

AA provides the method for attacking the habits that surround alcohol use. Though habits with alcoholism are extreme, the lessons AA provides demonstrates how any habit can be changed.

Faculty at Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago etc. have found a kind of a science. AA succeeds because it uses the loop of cues, routine and reward.

Image result for cue routine reward
The power of HABIT, Charles Duhigg

Researchers say the AA program works because it forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcohol habits and helps them find new behaviours.

  • AA asks them to list all the triggers, cravings which form the cue.
  • AA then asks them to search for rewards they get from alcohol. Intoxication most often is not the reward, it could be escape relaxation or emotional release to name a few.
  • In order to offer the same reward, AA has built a system of meetings and championship.
  • AA forces them to create new routines for what they do every night instead of drinking.

The triggers and the rewards remain the same, its just the behaviour that changes.

Scientists have tried to deal with alcoholism through surgeries of the brain from where the craving emanates. It deals with the cravings but the relapse happens soon post a streeful event.

However, once they learnt the alternative routines for dealing with stress they gave up drinking.

mindFly analysis

Habits, especially bad habits die hard. Aviation is dealing with such habits and they affect safety. Be it reading the checklist by memory, violation of SOP’s or use of problematic substance, there is a common loop as Charles Duhigg has elaborated in his book ” The power of HABIT”.

Developing good habits and changing the bad ones through certain routines cannot be achieved by the individual alone. The role of the the society, the airline, peers/mentors is essential. Humans form habits by observing other doing it when they are high in seniority or maturity that they consider as mentors.

Forming better routines can help individuals in solving many other issues like obesity too.

Therefore we need better examples, leaders and more importantly better hero’s than Pete “Maverick” Mitchell of the TOP Gun fame. The need to be safe in the workspace and out side is an essential requirement. The attitude towards work be it personal or professional shows it all.

About Capt. Amit Singh

I think therefore I am Airlines Operations and Safety balance expert. A former head of operations/training and safety of successful LCC's in India. An experienced member of the startup teams of these airlines has hands-on experience in establishing airlines systems and processes.

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